A driving coach takes his jokes on the road

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Jerry Zezima Newsday staffer Jerry Zezima

Jerry Zezima, a Newsday assistant editor who writes a nationally syndicated humor column for his hometown paper, The ...

In the four decades since I took a driver's ed class, I have become such a proficient motorist that I could teach a class myself, except that I have two speeding tickets on my record and my name isn't Ed.

Still, in an effort to become less of a menace to society and, in the process, reduce my insurance rates, I recently took a refresher course from a guy who not only was named New York State Driving Instructor of the Year in 2011 by the National Safety Council, but has only one speeding ticket on his record.

"I was driving my son to college and I guess I was going a little too fast on the highway because I got pulled over," Marty Hirschfield explained. "My son was laughing at me in the backseat."

In fact, Hirschfield isn't even the best driver in his family.

"My wife is better than I am," he said.

"I could be in NASCAR," I told Hirschfield before the first of the two three-hour defensive-driving sessions, "but my SUV, which has 183,000 miles on it, can't do 200 miles per hour."

"Then it's a good thing you're taking this class," he replied.

Hirschfield, who has worked for Driver Education Consultants (defensivedriving4ny.com) for 17 years, told me and my 25 classmates that we had to remember four important things: "One, if I ask you a question, humor me. Two, stay awake. Three, pay attention. Four, I need you to laugh at my bad jokes. And they're pretty bad."

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Example: "In one class, I asked people to fill out the form all of you got. Where it said 'sex,' one woman wrote, 'Sometimes.' I said, 'Lady, that's more information than I wanted to know.' "

Hirschfield said that a lot of people take his course every three years but that very few of them remember what he said.

"I can tell the same jokes I told three years ago," he proclaimed. "I don't have to write new material."

Much of Hirschfield's material, which I was hearing for the first time, was pretty serious, such as the dangers of excessive speed, drinking and driving, texting and driving, and talking on a cellphone while driving.

"Nobody talks on a cellphone while they're watching their favorite TV show," Hirschfield said. "They don't want to be distracted. So why do they talk on the phone while they're driving?"

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Good question. He asked plenty of others, as when he said to me, "Jerry, in the real world, what does a yellow light mean?"

My response: "Floor it!"

The class laughed knowingly. Hirschfield smiled and said, "That's right. Pedal to the metal. But what is it supposed to mean?"

"Caution," I replied.

Hirschfield said, "That's right. Slow down."

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It was basic stuff that most people either forget or flout. But Hirschfield told us something that all but one person in the class didn't know.

"Can you ever make a left turn on red?" he asked.

Dorothy raised her hand and responded, "Yes, if you are coming out of a one-way street and turning onto another one-way street."

Hirschfield exclaimed, "That's right! You took my class three years ago. You must remember my bad jokes."

The scariest part, aside from the 10 short films we saw, involved the penalties for drunken driving in other countries. In Malaysia, for example, a DWI offender is jailed, and if he is married, his wife is jailed, too.

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"If that doesn't get you to stop drinking and driving," Hirschfield said, "nothing will."

All in all, the class was terrific, and our witty and insightful instructor was, of course, the driving force behind it. I even have a certificate to show I graduated.

"Drive home safely," Hirschfield told me on the way out. "After all, you don't want to get a speeding ticket."

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